Narrow Gauge Steam in Indian Country
September 22nd- 30th, 1994

Don Winter

Let’s Travel Tours is running a trip to the Durango & Silverton and Cumbres & Toltec narrow gauge steam tourist operations in Colorado & New Mexico, with visits to Mesa Verde National Park, Santa Fe (and the Santa Fe Southern Railroad) added in. We’ve elected to stop off in Arizona, to ride the Grand Canyon Railway, on the way back.

Thursday, September 22nd, 1994

To be in Durango for our planned early-morning train departure there, we have to leave Los Angeles on Thursday evening. After work on Thursday, we pack the car and drive to Los Angeles Union Station. There, we turn the car over to Henry, who helps us carry the bags over to the Let’s Travel Tours check-in table adjacent to the transient parking area and bus bays. We leave the bags we will not need on the train with Ed and Mary Lee von Nordeck (Ed is going with us, Mary Lee is not), get something to drink, and walk out to the departure platform when the trainset is in. Boarding the sleeping car, we find our room and settle in. Departure is at 8:15 pm. Dinner is on the train, this evening, so when dining car opening is announced, we head in (it’s the next car) and get our seating for dinner. We’re seated with other tour participants. After dinner it’s time for bed.

Southwest Chief Route Description

Friday, September 23rd, 1994

After breakfast on the train, we detrain in Gallup at 10:00 am. There are two buses waiting for the members of our group, and we board one of them after stowing our carry-on bags underneath. Tour leaders handle the ‘checked’ bags from the train to the buses. The driver of our bus is ‘Fred’, a Laguna Indian from a pueblo alongside the ATSF line nearer to Albuquerque. Our bus host is Mel Marks. We head north from Gallup via Shiprock to a road intersection in far northeast New Mexico, where we turn east to Farmington. Approaching Farmington, we leave the Indian Reservation, and notice the strong difference between the low level of care and maintenance of the houses and plots on the reservation and the high level of care and maintenance of the adjacent houses and plots off the reservation. I wonder aloud whether the state of those on the reservation is the result of poverty itself, or indicative of the way the quasi-socialism on the reservation leads to poverty! L

We stop for a late lunch in Farmington, then continue north into Durango. Our bus goes to one hotel, east of the station, while the other goes to a different hotel, further north in Durango. After we’ve checked in and had a chance to settle in to our rooms, we go over to the 1881-built station for the roundhouse tours that have been arranged for our group this evening. Dan McCall, Superintendent of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge RR, leads the small group we happen to be in. We cover the maintenance facilities inside the relatively new roundhouse (built to replace one destroyed by fire in recent years), ash-cleaning area, watering area, and coaling station. Dan also tells us a story about some of the newest residents in the area, who are taking advantage of modern communications to live in this area while pursuing careers in the stock market and corporate finance.  Some of these people complained to the state environmental protection folks about the level of smoke in the atmosphere coming from the steam locomotives in the railroad yard. However, chemical tests showed that the smoke particles were from the wood fireplaces favored by these new residents, not from the coal smoke produced by the railroad! After this fascinating introduction to narrow gauge steam, we eat at a New Mexico-style restaurant (what we call Mexican food) and go to bed.

Saturday, September 24th, 1994

Today, we’re riding the Photographers’ Special on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. This train provides the only way for photographers to get off and take pictures of passing trains, since none of the normal excursion trains permit this. Because it will take so long to cover the line, this train (run only once or twice a year) is the first train to leave Durango in the morning. The temperature is just above freezing when we leave the hotel, about 6:30 am, to walk over to the station. Our train of open cars interspersed with closed cars is waiting in the platform, but has no locomotive as yet. The photographers line up to capture the arrival of the former D&RGW K-36 2-8-2 (Mikado), built in the 1920s. The K-36 locomotives have outside frames (i.e. the wheels are inside the frame), but with the motion (rods and valve gear), cylinders, and rotating balance weights outside the frames. This results in a locomotive much larger that could otherwise be achieved with 3-foot gauge track. The motion of the free-hanging balance weights as the locomotive moves along is quite unlike anything I’ve seen on steam locomotives elsewhere.

The closed stock on the train is passenger cars of similar vintage, or modern replicas, with open platform vestibules and small plates for crossing between cars. The open cars are vintage gondolas fitted with longitudinal bench seats and simple canvas roofs to protect passengers from some of the sun. Passengers on the Let’s Travel Tours group were asked to specify on their sign-up form whether they wanted closed or open seating today. We specified “open”, as did many others. However, with the temperature as low as it is this morning, it’s easy to conclude that one really wanted to be inside the closed cars. To identify those who specified “open”, Ed von Nordeck has marked their nametags with a pink dot, thus preventing complications due to the intentional amnesia of those who are trying to change their minds. We came prepared with not only jackets and sweatshirts, but also gloves, which we will need for the first hour or two of the trip.

The tracks we will travel over today, and again on Monday, are remnants of the former Denver & Rio Grande (later . . . Western) 3-foot narrow gauge empire of the 1880s. This once extended all the way from Denver, via Pueblo, Walsenburg, LaVeta Pass, and Alamosa, all in Colorado. By the mid 1930s, this line had been standard-gauged all the way to Alamosa, with dual gauge track between Alamosa and Antonito. The line from Antonito to Durango, and the branches thence to Silverton and Farmington, remained narrow gauge to the end of its days in daily freight and passenger service. After closure of the line, in 1968, the 45-mile Silverton branch remained open for tourist trains. In recent years, D&RGW sold the Silverton branch to the D&SNGRR, who have rebuilt and replicated the stock, and added service, to cater to the tourist trade.

Durango & Silverton Route Description

The morning service of northbound trains results in trains passing us at various places along the route, all morning long. Let’s Travel Tours has arranged for lunch at an old hotel and saloon, a couple of blocks north, so we all march up 12th Street to get there, and have an excellent repast. After lunch, there’s time to look around the railroad facilities, and photograph some of the other trains that we haven’t seen already during the stops on the way north. Then we all board the train again and set off south, with more photo runbys on the way. Again, a number of regular service trains pass us at various places along the way. Twilight is fast approaching as we get back to Durango, illuminating the red mountains along the east side of the valley in flaming color.

Sunday, September 25th, 1994

Today, we’re taking the buses over to Mesa Verde National Park, an hour or so west of Durango, for ranger-guided tours of the native-American artifacts and ancient dwellings located on the mesa top and on the cliffs just below the top. This area was populated for the first two or three of centuries of the second millennium, with habitation apparently ceasing not long after 1300.

We turn off the main road into the park, and climb up the winding road to the top of the mesa. There, we stop to visit the museum and the Visitors’ Center, with a chance to visit the gift shops, before meeting our ranger naturalists. We then set off further south on the mesa top, to the location of the ancient dwellings and artifacts. The earlier dwellings and artifacts are in pits dug into the top of the mesa, exposing the strata that were on top 800-900 years ago. At the fully explored sites, the complete area of a dwelling has been excavated, permitting us to look at all of the rooms that were present in the house, seeing the way in which each house had its own kiva (an underground room for spirit worship), communal living area and one or two sleeping areas. Large fragments of the pots used at the time are also present to be viewed. Pottery and stone artifacts have survived; there are, of course, no wood artifacts of that vintage.

We move on cliff-top Pueblo ruins, and then to areas (such as Sun Point) where we can see several of the dwellings that are located under the brow of the cliffs, anywhere from 20 to 100 feet down the cliff face, with protectable stairs or other entry routes from the cliff top. These are of more recent vintage that the cliff-top dwellings, so must have been built when a need for protection against an enemy of some kind arose. We see many of these from clifftop overlooks, but at a location which also has a museum devoted to the life-cycle of the dwellings, there is a path down to Spruce Tree House, a large cliff-dwelling area, and the buses will be here long enough for us to get there and back, with time to look around. Chris decides not to do so, so I head down the steep path on my own (although near to other tour members) to take a look, walk into the rooms, climb down into a kiva (that has been provided with a copy of the ancient native ladders used for entry), and generally absorb the atmosphere of the ancient village (for there are enough housing units to make a village, down here).

Before dark, the buses take us back to our hotels, in time for dinner, packing and early bed prior to an early start on Monday.

Monday, September 26th, 1994

This morning, we rise early, get some coffee, and make an early start in the buses, so that we can be at Chama with plenty of time to spare for the 10 am departure of the Cumbres & Toltec excursion train. The road east from Durango generally follows the line once taken by the route of the D&RGW narrow gauge, passing through Pagosa Springs at a local summit between watersheds. We then leave the main road that heads for Alamosa and turn south toward Chama, entering New Mexico and crossing the continental divide at another local summit. Arriving in Chama, we pull into the parking lot at the Chama Depot

The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad is the remaining part of the former D&RG 3-foot narrow gauge main line between Alamosa and Durango. It was saved from scrapping by the States of Colorado and New Mexico, after the line closed in 1968, with state purchase concluded in 1970. There have been several successive operators (contracted with the states), usually operating the line from mid-June to mid-October, since then. The line runs from Chama, NM, to Antonito, CO.

Arriving at Chama, there is time to walk around the yard and see as much of the narrow-gauge equipment and rolling stock as possible, including the still operable 1923-built steam-powered rotary snowplow ‘OY’ and the coaling tower in the yard. Today’s train is headed by another narrow gauge Mikado. In front, though, are several gondola cars (loaded with cinders for use as ballast) and another 2-8-2 leading them, coupled onto our train. Boarding our train of closed cars, those of us in the front car open the windows. The air outside is still quite cool, so some people get up and move to other cars when we do this. We bid them a fond farewell!

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Route Description

At Osier, we stop for lunch in the lunchroom and time to patronize the gift shop. Here, the day’s two trains meet. The locomotives continue through, but the carriages return to their starting points. Thus, we board a different set of stock for the second half of the trip, but have the same locomotive as before.

In Antonito, we board the buses (that have driven over the mountains in a much shorter time than taken by the train) for the long ride south to Santa Fe. The road heads due south down a broad but essentially barren valley, with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east. After awhile, darkness falls. Because we will arrive in Santa Fe so late (even if we don’t stop), and because there are no traveler-oriented facilities along the way, Let’s Travel Tours has arranged for us to have a communal dinner at a village community center about two-thirds of the way to Santa Fe. This is acceptable, but not wonderful, but goes some way toward meeting the needs of those who usually eat their evening meal at 5 or 6 pm. (Those of us who routinely eat at 7 or after, and later when on vacation, might have preferred to wait until we got to Santa Fe.)

In Santa Fe, the buses again go to different hotels. We’re in one, the Inn at Loreto, that is designed in imitation of old pueblo-style buildings, but is quite palatial inside. This hotel is right next door to the famous Loreto Chapel. It’s been a long day, so we go to bed as soon as we’ve settled into the room.

Tuesday, September 27th, 1994

In mid morning, we bus over to the depot of the Santa Fe Southern, where there is time to look around the gift shop, etc., before boarding the railroad’s excursion train (run specially for our tour group on this autumn weekday) for our trip to Lamy and back. The train comprises a few recycled coaches (these heavyweight clerestory cars may be former Lackawanna electric multiple-unit cars, with their electrical gear removed) and a chop-nosed early EMD road switcher in Santa Fe Southern’s red and yellow paint scheme. The conductor gives a running commentary over the PA as the train moves along. This former Santa Fe branch had been largely unused for several years before the Santa Fe Southern took over, and one of the conductor’s stories is about a resident who wanted the railroad to move its tracks away from her house, when the renewed railroad activity started making frequent disturbing noises going past her house!

Santa Fe Southern Route Description

Arriving at Lamy, we leave the train and make our way to The Legal Tender, the old hotel across the square from the Amtrak depot, where a group lunch has been arranged for us. The lunch is served buffet-style at one end of the former restaurant, but we have the choice of sitting in the old saloon or the restaurant itself to eat it. After lunch, there is time to walk around what remains of Lamy, including the old church some distance from the rest of the buildings that remain in town. While we’re doing this, a freight train and an Amtrak train pass on the adjacent Santa Fe Passenger Main, with the latter making its station stop here.

The run back to Santa Fe is uneventful, but gives us the opportunity to observe the scenery going the other way (the train has been turned on the wye at the junction with the Santa Fe main line while we were eating lunch). Returning to our hotel, we take advantage of the chance to visit the Loretto Chapel next door. The interest in this chapel is the spiral staircase that seems just to hang in space without the benefit of supports. The staircase has hung there like that since it was built many decades ago. The chapel itself is no longer a consecrated space, but is run as a museum for the purpose of preserving the staircase and its environment.

After our visit to the chapel, we walk a few block west to the India Palace,  an Indian (not native-American) Restaurant that we have found in the Yellow Pages, and have an excellent dinner.

Wednesday, September 28th, 1994

In mid-morning, we checkout of the hotel, and board the buses to head toward Albuquerque, where we will board Amtrak train 3 in early evening. Rather than traveling directly down Interstate 25, and then hanging around in Albuquerque for several hours, we take a side road that passes through old western towns along the way. In one such town, there’s an opportunity to eat lunch in one of several restaurants along the main street. In another, there are several old western curio shops, one of which has a petting zoo alongside it. Naturally, Chris heads directly for the latter, finding the bags of animal food to purchase, and then feeding the various animals. Barbara Sibert comments that Chris could find an animal to pet or feed in the middle of the desert.

After a stop in another town, where many people buy ice cream (the weather is hot), we have made our way as far south as Albuquerque, but are east of the Sandia Mountains. So, we turn west on Interstate 40 and cross those mountains into Albuquerque, arriving at the remains of the Amtrak depot by late afternoon. (The old Santa Fe station, formerly used by Amtrak, burned down over the winter, and Amtrak operations are now based in the former baggage warehouse.)

When the train arrives, we board our rear sleeping car, which (from what the attendant says) has traveled empty all the way from Chicago, more than a full day earlier, pending our boarding here. Departure is at 5:15 pm. From Gallup west, we retrace the route we took earlier in the trip. We see very little of the scenery along this line, since darkness falls not far west of Dalies.

Most of the tour participants are heading directly back to Los Angeles. Chris and I, however, have asked Ed von Nordeck to arrange a side trip for us on the Grand Canyon Railway, which he has done. We leave the train at Flagstaff, in late evening (9:15 pm), and take a taxi to our selected hotel. Here, it transpires that the hotel was unable to get an authorization on the credit card we had given for late arrival, and has given away the room they had been keeping for us. However, another hotel another half mile away has space, so we take another taxi over there and get a room. We go directly to bed, because we have to be up early in the morning.

Thursday, September 29th, 1994

The Grand Canyon Railway train starts from the depot in Williams, AZ, some 30 miles west of Flagstaff. The bus that will take us there connects with Amtrak train 4 in the morning. So, we have to be back at the depot when train 4 arrives (or leaves). Just after dawn, we checkout of the hotel and take a taxi back to the depot. There, we join a horde of travelers who have come from Los Angeles on Amtrak, and are heading for the Grand Canyon (by bus, which goes there after its visit to Williams). The bus, which has come up from Phoenix in the early-morning darkness fills up at the Amtrak depot, then stops briefly at the bus depot in Flagstaff, before heading west along Interstate 40, through the pine forest across the Arizona Divide, to Williams.

In Williams, we leave the bus and go to the GCR booking office to pickup our previously booked tickets. We have reserved tickets on the parlor car (a heavyweight business car that travels at the rear of the train). After looking around the museum, its time to board the train, so we head to the open rear platform (of the car) to board our car. We take seats in the lounge-style seating along the walls of the car, and settle in for the trip.

Grand Canyon Railway Route Description

In the course of the northbound trip, one of the managers of the Grand Canyon Railroad brings in some special guests. These prove to be Dan McCall and some of his staff from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge—the people who had taken the various groups on the Durango roundhouse tours the previous Friday evening. They take seats next to where we’re sitting, and we indicate that we recognize them from the roundhouse tours, even though they clearly don’t recognize us.

We arrive at the Canyon depot under threatening skies. After lunch, which we’re able to take at El Tovar, we set off to walk along the canyon rim to the National Park Service’s Visitor Center, about a mile east. About a third of the way there, the threatening skies finally make good on their threat, and we get soaked. We make a hasty return to El Tovar, where we dry out in the upstairs lounge area while awaiting train time. On the way back to Williams, the GCR stages an old-time train robbery, with ‘desperados’ stopping the train, boarding, and then coming through the train with rather bad old-style western movie acting.

Back in Williams, we have some time to wait for the bus to arrive. We spend some of it looking around the gift shop, and some of it watching “Buffy”, a Bison calf that is in a pen adjacent to the GCR station platform. Finally, after sunset, the bus arrives; we take the only remaining pair of adjacent seats, and the bus heads over to Flagstaff in the dark. In Flagstaff, we leave our bags with the station agent, and go off to find a restaurant for dinner in the adjacent area of town. Not long after dinner, train 3 arrives (24 hours behind the one we had ridden in on, yesterday), and we board our sleeper towards the rear. The train departs at 9:15 pm, we go directly to bed, and are soon asleep.

Friday, September 30th, 1994

We awake during the descent of Cajon Pass, and dress as the train makes its San Bernardino stop. As usual, the padding in the schedule allows us to make up an hour or more of time on the run into Los Angeles, arriving at 8:15 am. At LAUS, we take the Metropolitan Shuttle to Hermosa Beach, where I change and drive off to go into work.